Wednesday, March 29, 2006


Cat Scratch Fever

There is no good reason to post this story other than it's from my home state and you would swear it came straight from the Onion if it did not have the AP byline. My favorite part is that the animal control officer actually claimed to put the little bugger under house arrest.

Crazy Cat Terrorizes Connecticut Town

Mar 29, 7:24 AM (ET)
FAIRFIELD, Conn. (AP) - Residents of the neighborhood of Sunset Circle say they have been terrorized by a crazy cat named Lewis. Lewis for his part has been uniquely cited, personally issued a restraining order by the town's animal control officer.
"He looks like Felix the Cat and has six toes on each foot, each with a long claw," Janet Kettman, a neighbor said Monday. "They are formidable weapons."
The neighbors said those weapons, along with catlike stealth, have allowed Lewis to attack at least a half dozen people and ambush the Avon lady as she was getting out of her car.
Some of those who were bitten and scratched ended up seeking treatment at area hospitals.
Animal Control Officer Rachel Solveira placed a restraining order on him. It was the first time such an action was taken against a cat in Fairfield.
In effect, Lewis is under house arrest, forbidden to leave his home.
Solveira also arrested the cat's owner, Ruth Cisero, charging her with failing to comply with the restraining order and reckless endangerment.


Black Males Left Behind

The myth that Katrina reawakened America to the cruel inhumanity of black poverty in our society was officially put to rest last week. In case you missed it, the New York Times ran a highly damning front-page story on a series of new studies that indicate the plight of black men in this country is actually far worse than even most white middle-class Times readers already suspect -- and the nation effectively collectively yawned.

According to the Times story, the new studies by top researchers at Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard show that “the huge pool of poorly educated black men are becoming ever more disconnected from the mainstream society, and to a far greater degree than comparable white or Hispanic men. . . finishing high school is the exception, legal work is scarcer than ever and prison is almost routine, with incarceration rates climbing for blacks even as urban crime rates have declined.”

This used to be the kind of report that jolted complacencies and reframed debates – or at a minimum provoked anger and protest from civil rights advocates. But in this case, just six months after Katrina exposed the indefensible inequities that persist in our inner cities for all to see, the Black Males Left Behind collection has been greeted with barely a whimper of discomfort, even among progressives.

Indeed, no prominent Washington Democrat rushed to the microphones to denounce the damning findings -- that half of all black men don’t finish high school, that 72 percent of those dropouts can’t find jobs, or that 6 out of 10 of them spend time in prison by the time they reach their mid-30s. The DNC said nothing on the subject. And a quick scan of several leading Democratic blogs from last week showed no featured posts or detectable discussions.

That's hardly surprising. Iraq is sucking up most of the outrage oxygen out of the political atmosphere right now on the left. But that's probably irrelevant. The fact is the Democratic Party has been taking the African-American populace for granted for years, doing little serious policy work to address the complex problems of family and cultural breakdown, failing public schools, or economic opportunity that are perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Instead we have chosen mostly to throw a few rhetorical bones and some campaign cash around come election time to make sure the black vote turns out.

The inescapable horrors that Katrina brought into our living rooms temporarily changed that dynamic, not because our collective conscience was actually pricked in any sustained way, but because it was an effective vehicle to drive our animus towards President Bush. Now that the awful images from New Orleans have long receded with the flood waters, we have moved onto other Republican screw-ups and vote-drawing controversies.

What was truly remarkable about the reaction to the Times story, though, was the seemingly wholesale silence from the traditional spokesgroups for the African-American community. The NAACP did not bother to put up a statement on its website. Nor did the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. And not even a pip out of Al Sharpton (never thought I would ever bemoan that).

Could it be that black America has joined white America in losing its capacity to be outraged by the dispossession and disconnection of a generation of African-American men, let alone its will to do something about it? Have we all grown so inured to these gross disparities that even the civil rights crusaders have come to accept them as inevitable and unsolvable?

Or could it be that black America has simply lost its voice?

Think about it for a moment. Who speaks for the nation’s African-American community today on the national stage? Who are the Frederick Douglas's and MLK’s of this generation, the kind of leaders who can force the country to focus, call it to account, and mobilize it to action?

To be more specific, who is challenging the establishment education groups that are self-servingly blocking meaningful reform of our urban public schools and trapping a generation of children of color into second-class status? And who is challenging the self-destructive mindset among many black students today that to achieve at a high level is to "act white" and is therefore worthy of contempt?

Who is challenging the political establishment -- and in particular the black community's supposed allies in the Democratic Party -- to develop a credible, forward looking economic opportunity and security agenda? Something that goes beyond the stale promises to raise the minimum wage and will actually help create jobs, and which will help the working poor build assets and attain self-sufficiency.

Not least of all, who is challenging the widely-accepted social norms within some quarters of the African-American community that have made out-of-wedlock births the domestic default and sharply diminished the two-parent household in our inner cities (as well as the economic and developmental security that comes with it)? Who is pushing black America to confront the deeply damaging consequences of the rampant marginalization and absence of fathers in high-poverty communities?

These are not easy questions to ask, let alone answer (especially for a white man). It is much simpler and safer to talk about lingering racism, the conservative assault on affirmative action, unfair drug laws, and removing "structural" barriers that are preventing African-Americans -- particularly black men -- from getting and keeping good jobs.

These are not insignificant issues. But as Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson, one of the nation's leading black scholars, pointed out in a presumption-shattering op-ed in this past Sunday's Times, they really don't get at the nub of the problem. His take, to fall back on a standard political trope, is that it's the culture, stupid.

In Patterson's view, the rote explanations for the plight of black men, which were echoed in the Black Males Left Behind studies, fail to address the critical questions raised by the data.

Why are young black men doing so poorly in school that they lack basic literacy and math skills? These scholars must know that countless studies by educational experts, going all the way back to the landmark report by James Coleman of Johns Hopkins University in 1966, have found that poor schools, per se, do not explain why after 10 years of education a young man remains illiterate.

Nor have studies explained why, if someone cannot get a job, he turns to crime and drug abuse. One does not imply the other. Joblessness is rampant in Latin America and India, but the mass of the populations does not turn to crime.

And why do so many young unemployed black men have children — several of them — which they have no resources or intention to support? And why, finally, do they murder each other at nine times the rate of white youths?

Patterson argues that the answer, while hardly monolithic, largely lies in the roots of what he calls the "cool-pose" culture of young black men -- "hanging out on the street after school, shopping and dressing sharply, sexual conquests, party drugs, hip-hop music and culture." He suggests this cultural influence has the addictive power of a drug and as such is much more of a deterrent to succeeding academically and integrating into the social mainstream than the fear of being seen as acting white.

I call this the Dionysian trap for young black men. The important thing to note about the subculture that ensnares them is that it is not disconnected from the mainstream culture. To the contrary, it has powerful support from some of America's largest corporations. Hip-hop, professional basketball and homeboy fashions are as American as cherry pie. Young white Americans are very much into these things, but selectively; they know when it is time to turn off Fifty Cent and get out the SAT prep book.

For young black men, however, that culture is all there is — or so they think. Sadly, their complete engagement in this part of the American cultural mainstream, which they created and which feeds their pride and self-respect, is a major factor in their disconnection from the socioeconomic mainstream.

Patterson makes clear that this self-destructive subculture is inextricably linked to
America's long history of bigotry and racial repression, and has to be understood in that context. But his entire argument makes just as clear the folly of victomology, of placing all or even most of the blame for the plight of black men today on past or present racism or other external forces.

One of the only nationally-recognized black leaders to advance this argument, and to wade into this emotionally-charged debate about social norms within the black community, is Bill Cosby. As you may recall, he was roundly criticized by many leading black advocates, and vilified by some, for corraling a few sociological sacred cows and holding them up for scrutiny. That helps explain why few have followed suit.

So too does the fact that many of the black community's longstanding political allies on the left are often playing the George Wallace role now. The teachers unions have become the primary schoolhouse door blockers, preventing black children from escaping to high-performing public charter schools in the short term and stopping policymakers from adopting common-sense reforms like a longer school day and performance pay to improve the existing public school system in the long term. The women's groups have been doing their best to stifle any frank discussion about the indispensability of fathers to their children. And the Hollywood elite have long deflected serious questions about the murderous and misogynistic movies, music, and video games they peddle to kids by cynically crying censorship. It's a lot easier to take on Jesse Helms than Fitty Cent.

The reasons for this vacuum of African-American voices, though, are far less important than the ramifications. If Katrina taught us anything, it's that white America cannot be counted on to care about, let alone actively confront, the mass dispossession and disconnection of black men in this country on its own. It is going to take persistent prodding from morally commanding African-American leaders who are unafraid to ask tough questions and demand honest answers from all of us.

That is especially true for changing social norms in our inner cities. No matter how smart Bill Bennett may be, we know from experience that he and other white conservatives who have been raising alarms about the breakdown of the black family have no credibility or standing to lecture black Americans about their personal behavior. Nor do Howard Dean or Nancy Pelosi or any other white progressive leader for that matter. This debate about the future of black America can only be prompted and advanced by prominent and respected black Americans.

The question remains: where are they? From what I can tell, there are thousands of passionate and principled African-American advocates and activists who are working to tackle these complicated issues on the local level and who could emerge in time on the national stage. Cory Booker in Newark is a prime example. But right now, the only leader in the national political arena who could credibly lead this kind of dialogue is Barack Obama. And so far he has not shown the inclination or the inspiration to take on the challenge.

As the only African-American in the Senate, I can understand Obama's reluctance. He has a world of weighty expectations on his shoulders; he also wants to avoid being pigeonholed as the black Senator. But given the paucity of alternatives at the moment, I hope he will soon see that his country needs his voice here every bit as much as the black community, if not more so.

Monday, March 27, 2006


Making Sense on Censure

Over the weekend Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times -- one of the smartest political commentators working today -- turned in a typically savvy analysis of the politics of censure, which provides a nice counterpoint to Peter Beinart's more positive take on Feingold's proposal I linked to a couple days ago.

Brownstein's primary argument is that the censure gambit has undercut the national Democratic strategy for the 2006 midterm elections, which is to de-emphasize ideology and stress competence, or the lack thereof on the part of Bush and the Republican Congress. By shifting the debate back to a big policy issue and away from corruption and governance matters, Feingold has hurt his party by helping the Republicans frame the election as a choice instead of a straight-up referendum, as Reid and Pelosi want.

That is a valid point -- assuming of course that Feingold's proposal is viewed primarily through an ideological prism. That may well be the case for most insiders and many voters on first gloss. But there is strong argument that censure in this instance is more about governance and accountability than ideology -- we are talking about lawbreaking here, not lawmaking -- and as such fits squarely within the competence construct.

I'm not sure I am ready to advocate a full-scale censure offensive by the party leadership -- I am more receptive at this point to the good-cop, bad-cop approach Beinart advocates. But I'd be curious to see how far swing voters would swing our way if we made a concerted effort to link the censure proposal to our larger indictment on corruption, secrecy, and mismanagement.

Sunday, March 26, 2006


Notions of Note

Some recent reading that I thought was worth sharing. . .

1) I had very mixed feelings about Russ Feingold's censure proposal before reading Peter Beinart's provocative New Republic column on the subject this past week, which made a compelling case that the censure gambit might actually be good for the Democratic Party, if not the country.

The consensus judgment of the punditocracy, and of many Washington Democrats, has been that Feingold made a boneheaded move by changing the subject at a time when Bush and the Republicans had been taking a sustained pounding over Iraq, the Dubai Ports deal, the Abramoff and Duke Cunningham scandals, and the Cheney hunting accident. That concern, which I initially shared to some extent, has proven to be misguided -- Bush and his increasingly cranky allies on the Hill are still very much on the defensive.

Instead, as Beinart argues fairly convincingly, the primary effect has been to shift the fulcrum of the debate and make the criticisms of the Democratic leadership seem more mainstream and measured. In that respect, Beinart contends, Feingold has done the party a favor by staking out a new pole on the accountability spectrum and forcing more of a focus on Bush's arrogance of governance (as opposed to his sins of ideology).

Perhaps the best validation of this theory has been the public response -- 42 percent of the American people expressed support for censuring Bush over the illegal NSA wiretapping program at first blush. Should Harry Reid decide to embrace Feingold's proposal, it will be quite fascinating to see where that number will go after a full airing of the case against the President.

2) The American Prospect's current cover story on the resurrection of Al Gore by Ezra Klein is the most interesting and insightful piece on the former VP I have come across in the last couple years.

Avoiding the futile fixation of 2008 speculation, Klein chooses to probe the groundbreaking strategy Gore is following to bypass the keepers of conventional wisdom and communicate directly with the public and challenge the Bush propaganda machine on Iraq, civil liberties, and global warming (among other things).

At times Klein is a little too uncritical of Gore, for example putting too much blame on Gore's disastrous 2000 campaign on outside forces and not enough on the candidate himself. But otherwise he provides an exceedingly fair and thoughtful assessment of Gore as a man ahead of his time, which should help remind folks about why this guy was widely regarded as the best vice president of the 20th Century (if not all time).

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Speaking of Civility

Today's LSOTA (Latest Sign of the Apocalypse) report (courtesy of Drudge):

Police: Man Killed Boy For Walking Across Yard

UPDATED: 7:04 am EST March 21, 2006

BATAVIA, Ohio -- An Ohio man who neighbors say was devoted to his meticulously kept lawn has been charged with murder in the shooting of a 15-year-old boy who apparently walked across his yard.

I see a new trend developing: Mowed Rage.


Putting the Civility back in Civil Rights

For those who think there is no hope of bridging the deep cultural divides in this country, I would recommend reading an encouraging op-ed from yesterday's USA Today by Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., and the author of a new paper entitled "Public Schools and Sexual Orientation: A First Amendment framework for finding common ground.”

Haynes does not take sides or pretend to offer a substantive solution to the charged clashes that are going on in many communities across the nation around homosexuality in our schools. Instead, following the constructive roadmap that former Education Secretary Richard Riley developed during the Clinton Administration to help public schools navigate the church-state line, Haynes outlines a thoughtful, practicable process to help schools, parents, and advocates air and resolve their differences responsibly and respectfully.

As Haynes writes:

To avoid divisive fights and lawsuits, educators and parents must agree on civic ground rules to ensure fairness for all sides. After all, public schools belong to everyone. However deeply we disagree about homosexuality, the vast majority of us want schools to uphold the rights of all students in a safe learning environment. It isn't possible for us to reach ideological or religious consensus, but it is possible — and necessary — to reach civic consensus on civil dialogue.

School districts divided about how to handle issues concerning sexual orientation should take a step back from the debate and find agreement on First Amendment principles. Most Americans can agree that freedom of religion and speech are inherent rights for all. Starting with an acknowledgement of inalienable rights immediately levels the playing field, helping to ensure that everyone has a right to speak — and everyone's claim of conscience is taken seriously.

More challenging, but still attainable, is an agreement that we all have a civic responsibility to guard the rights of others, including those with whom we disagree. And, finally, people must agree to debate one another without resorting to personal attacks, ridicule, false characterizations of opposing positions and similar tactics.

Maybe for his next act, we can get Haynes to write some groundrules of responsibility and respect for the children in Congress.

Saturday, March 18, 2006


Faith, More or Less

After promising myself for weeks that I was going to writer shorter posts more often, here goes.

I came across an interesting debate online this morning about Democratic outreach to religious voters that I would encourage you to peruse. The best place to start -- and finish, really -- is with the always insightful Ed Kilgore over at New Donkey, who has been studying the role of faith of politics longer than most bloggers have been out of junior high.

While many progressive commentators are positing it is a waste of time for the Democratic Party to be courting people of faith, including evangelicals, Ed smartly argues that Democrats can and should compete for this major voting bloc without compromising our core convictions on religious and social tolerance.

[T]here are millions of voters attending "conservative" churches who are not in any meaningful sense part of the "Republican base." They do not, in fact, listen to Rush Limbaugh, or for that matter, James Dobson. They attend the churches they attend for reasons that have nothing to do with the agenda of the Cultural Right. They have all sorts of political, moral and civic beliefs that are entirely consistent with the values and policy positions of Democrats. But they have voted, and will vote, Republican if there's no real competition for their votes, and if they perceive, erroneously, that Democrats live in a different moral universe than theirs, or have contempt for their beliefs.

For more enlightenment on the subject, check out two excellent articles in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly from Amy Sullivan and Steven Waldman, who rank with Ed as among the most thoughtful voices on faith-based politics in the progressive community.

Monday, March 13, 2006


A Message to Team Titanic: Weisberg Ahead!

Better late than never: I want to call your attention to this pinpoint assessment of the Democratic Party's abysmal national leadership team that Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg wrote last week.

Instead of viewing the trio of Dean, Reid, and Pelosi -- the "Three Stooges" as he calls them -- through the narrow prism of ideology, Weisberg breaks down their individual and collective failures in terms of their ability (or lack thereof) to address the party's huge political and policy deficits and the awful image they project. Here are the money shots from his piece:

Since assuming their positions, the three of them have shown themselves to be somewhere between useless and disastrous as party leaders. Individually, they lack substance and policy smarts (Pelosi); coherence and force (Reid); and steadiness and mainstream appeal (Dean). Collectively, they convey an image of liberal elitism, disarray, and crabbiness. . .

But more important than what the three stooges do wrong is what they can't seem to do at all, namely articulate a positive agenda for reform and change. Voters have grown disenchanted with Bush's mishandling of the war in Iraq and the country's finances, and with the evangelical tilt of many of his policies. But there remains a baseline mistrust of Democrats on security, the economy, and values issues. For a sweep big enough to recover both houses of Congress, the party will almost certainly need an affirmative message as well as a negative one. Democrats need to demonstrate they won't just cut and run from Iraq, that they see security as more than a civil liberties issue, and that their alternative to tax cuts isn't just more spending on flawed social programs and unchallenged growth in entitlements.

Thus far, Pelosi, Reid, and Dean have been literally unable to develop such a national message for the party's congressional candidates. Not just a good message—any message. Their "legislative manifesto," originally promised for November, has been delayed more often than a flight on Jet Blue. When it eventually arrives, expect something benign and insipid. In 1994, Gingrich had the Contract With America. In 2006, Democrats will have another glass of merlot.

I could never understand how these three were entrusted with the Party's future after the Kerry debacle. But as I have noted before, the far greater mystery is how they have been allowed to remain in power this long. Where is Trump when you need him?

Friday, March 10, 2006


The Straight Story

As some of you may know, earlier this week I had the pleasant experience of serving as a personal pinata for an obscure liberal blogger named Howie Klein and some of the people who read his commentaries on Huffington Post and Daily Kos. My offense? I challenged Klein's defamatory characterization of my former boss, Joe Lieberman, as a racist and homophobe.

I initially resisted the temptation to respond to the ugly personal attacks that Klein and his fans threw around after I complained, in large part because, as several wise friends of mine have reminded me, it's a waste of time to try to reason with fundamentally unreasonable people. No countervaling facts or arguments, no matter how convincing, were going to penetrate the closed minds of people like the author of this piece of hate mail I received:

You are the perfect moral argument for abortion. If you were black,
you'd be the perfect moral argument for lynching, and if you were
Jewish, you'd be the perfect moral argument for Auschwitz.

But after taking some time to get some perspective, I realized there a few misunderstandings that I want to clear up, just for the sake of the public record, and a few reflections on the incident that I want to share.

First, a bit of context. When I launched my blog at the beginning of the year, I made a point of staying away from the angry assault on Senator Lieberman taking place in some quarters of the Democratic blogoshere. Much as I still have great admiration and affection for the man, and a strong sense of loyalty, I wanted to carve out an independent space to comment on matters important to me.

But when I saw Klein's hate-fueled post on the Huffington website, which is one of the most widely-read blogs on the left, I just couldn't let it go unchallenged. It's one thing to attack people's positions, even in the venomous languague that can flare up in the blog world, on some obscure website. It's quite another to make personal slurs that are demonstrably untrue about a deeply honorable man in a large and influential public forum.

So I asked my progressive friend and blogging guru Micah Sifry if he knew how to reach the editors of the HuffPost. Micah, who had not seen Klein's post, gave me Roy Sekoff's email and told me to use his name. I then sent a short note to Sekoff calling his attention to Klein's libelous statements, and asked him to either delete those unjustifiable references or to take down Klein's post. (NOTE: I made the mistake of casually misuing the word "slanderous" in my original email, which, as one of the few thoughtful responders to Klein's posts pointed out, technically applies to oral defamatory comments; "libelous" applies to written expressions. I stand corrected.)

I also sent along two detailed documents listing Lieberman's record on civil rights and gay rights issues, which to an intellectually honest reader should just about eliminate any suspicion of racism or homophobia, and encouraged the editor to pass them along to Klein. I thought he might actually care about the evidence -- shows what a naive fool I can be.

Now, in fairness to Klein, he is technically correct when he says that he did not explicitly come out and say Lieberman was a "racist" in his initial post, as he did in calling the Senator an "unrelenting homophobe." But his import in writing that Lieberman's stance on affirmative action in the 1990s made racism "quasi-acceptable" was clear. And if there was any doubt about that, Klein removed it with his next post, where he stitches together a bunch of political complaints and policy distortions to repeatedly insinuate that Lieberman is racist. I'm sorry, Howie, but you can't have it both ways.

Next, I want to make clear that, contrary to Klein's disingenous follow-up post, I did not lodge my protest "secretly" or "anonymously." I identified who I was and gave all my contact information in the email I sent. And I never asked to hide my identity. Klein knows this because my email was directly forwarded to him by the Huffington Post's editors. If you want to see for yourself, here it is verbatim [NOTE: I removed my cell phone number for privacy reasons]:

Hi Roy. My friend Micah Sifry suggested I get in touch with you about Howie Klein’s vicious rant against my old boss, Joe Lieberman, that’s up on your site now.

I am less concerned with Klein’s absurb mischaracterizations of Lieberman’s position on free speech issues — which I would be happy to debate him on -- than with his slanderous statements about Lieberman being a racist and a homophobe.

Those accusations are not open to debate — they are demonstrably untrue. Lieberman went to Mississippi to register voters in 1963 and then marched with MLK, hardly the work of a racist. In addition, he has long been a leading cosponsor of ENDA [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act], and he introduced a domestic partnership benefits bill for federal employees — hardly the work of a homophobe. (If necessary I can send you a much longer exposition on Lieberman’s record on civil rights.)

As such, I would ask you to remove those references from Klein’s post or take it down. These kind of wild, unsubstantiated, sleazy attacks have no place on a blog that is trying to promote a serious, substantive political debate. Indeed, I have great respect for your site precisely because unlike much of the liberal blogosphere, your commentators have refrained from this kind of ugly vituperation and written on a far higher plane. Please don’t let people like Howie Klein drag you down into that gutter.

I would be happy to discuss any of this in more detail if that would be helpful.

Otherwise, thanks in advance for your attention to this matter.

-- Dan Gerstein

Dan Gerstein Consulting
260 Fifth Avenue, 9th Floor
New York, NY 10001
212-584-5000 (O)
212-584-5045 (F)

In making this complaint, I was not acting on anyone's behalf, contrary to the conspiracy theories that Klein and others have tried to spin. I don't work for Senator Lieberman any more in any capacity, no one who does directed me to do anything, and Lieberman had no idea about it. I was simply defending a friend who deserves far better, hard as that may be for some to believe.

Nor was I engaging in censorship, as Klein speciously charged. I respect Klein's right to vent his disdain for Lieberman, no matter how ill-informed some of it may be, and I did nothing to deny or infringe on his ability to speak his mind. All I did was to exercise my free speech rights, by challenging the veracity of Klein's unfounded attacks and urging the HuffPost editors to think about whether they want to give a platform and legitimacy to such a big, hurtful lie. In the process, I didn't make any threats or bring any pressure to bear -- I just asked.

Let me make an analogy to drive home this point. If Klein or another feautured commentator had called Lieberman a dirty Jew and traitor to his country, and I had asked the editors to remove those indefensible words, would I be censoring Klein's speech? Would it have been right to make me explain in a counter post why he was NOT a dirty Jew and a traitor to his country? (If you think this analogy is too far afield, I would urge you to read some of the thinly-veiled anti-Semitic digs that run through the responses to Klein's post on Kos and Huffington.)

While I was disappointed with the ultimate outcome, the editors at least demanded that Klein substantiate his defamatory charges, which in turn exposed to the world just how ridiculous his arguments are. Case in point: Klein's inexplicable contention that the Media Marketing Accountability Act, which I helped write while working in Lieberman's office, was homophobic. There is not one mention of homosexuality or anything close to it in the bill, which was meant to stop big media companies from deceptively marketing entertainment products rated for adults to minors, or nothing remotely implying concern aboout homosexuality.

In contrast, there were plenty of hostile implications about my own sexuality in several of the responses to Klein's posts, which generally suggested I was a self-loathing gay man, a la Roy Cohn. I had to chuckle over that. If these folks had actually done any homework about me, which I doubt they did, I could see how they could make that leap -- I am single, 38, and live in Chelsea. But much as I hate to burst their belligerent bubbles, I am comfortably heterosexual.

Something else that my critics might have discovered, though, is that I have a gay mother and a gay sister. They may have also learned that I atended my sister's wedding in Massachusetts last May, in which I gave a toast praising her and her partner for their courage.

I mention this piece of personal information not because I feel any need to prove that I am not a homophobe, but to make a larger point about the dangers of jumping to political conclusions and particularly the "indict first, ask questions later" mentality that is threatening to drag down the Democratic blogosphere's credibility.

Reading Klein's rants and those of his readers, I saw a bizarro-world caricature of myself that has no basis in fact. Purely based on my connection with Lieberman -- and in some cases, on their misguided interpretation of the commentaries I have written in the Wall Street Journal that have been critical of the Democratic Party's strategy -- these folks asserted with certainty that, in addition to being a self-loathing gay man, that I am a closet right-winger, a moral zealot, a Bush apologist, and a war-monger.

I wish these commenters had taken the time to read my blog -- at least one of them did, and concluded I was not nearly the devil I was being made out to be -- and, god forbid, talk to me. They might have surprised to find out that not only am I pro-gay marriage and pro-choice, but that I disagree with Lieberman about the conduct of the war in Iraq, that I think the defense budget is bloated and should be cut, that we should at least double salaries for public school teachers, that I view Bush as one of the worst leaders in American history, and that I consider Paul Wellstone a hero.

Which is to say, I hardly fit into the simplistic ideological box that some want to put me in. The reality is I am an iconoclastic independent-thinking progressive, who believes that government not only can but must be an agent for economic opportunity and social justice. Indeed, what disagreements I have with the leading commentators on Kos, Huffington, and MyDD (among others) are much less about ends or values, though we part ways on a few key issues, but of means and tactics.

Yet this untidy, presumption-busting reality is mostly moot. Like Lieberman, I have already been tried and convicted as an apostate, and the only just punishment it seems is banishment from the party. Think I am exaggerating? I would encourage you to read the comments on Kos and Huffington for yourself.

What you will find on these select sites is more evidence of the Mao-meets-McCarthy mindset that is increasingly common in the Democratic blogosphere and to some extent the party's activist base. According to this way of thinking, if you do not adhere to our positions with absolute purity and fealty, and/or if you ever say something nice about a Republican, you are a betrayer, and must be purged from the party. Even worse, deviate from some arbitrary orthodoxy one iota, and you are presumed to be a bigot.

I want to be careful not to overstate the extent of this problem or treat the Democratic blogosphere as a monolith, an error that I and others have made in the past. I am relative new to the blogging community, and I have come to appreciate that most of the conversation happening on the left side of the Net is vital in a happy warrior-ish way and value-adding on the whole. I may not always agree with the positions or propositions articulated, but they are typically thoughtful and thought-provoking. More important, they are part of a vibrant, empowering conversation online that is largely enriching the whole of our democracy.

But it is just as clear that the viciousness expressed in Klein's and his acolytes' comments is not just a neglibible or easily-isolated element. This strain of angry absolutism is spreading and infecting more and more of the political discourse in the progressive online community. If it continues unchecked, I fear that we may over time become what Democrats supposedly despise most about the hard right wingnuts -- a bunch of ignorant, intolerant dogmatists.

That unfortunately is how many outsiders, particularly thought-leaders in the national political class, already view the progressive blogosphere. Case in point: I recently relayed my experience with Howie Klein to a friend who is a very smart, unconventional, and nationally-recognized political consultant, and his advice was to just ignore what he referred to as "the crazies." It's an unfair caricature, much like the one that is being presented of Joe Lieberman. But it is already widely-held, and I suspect that this stigma and its consequences will only get worse -- and the progressive blogosphere will become increasingly marginalized -- if Klein's paranoid style gets more traction.

I am also very concerned about the broader, bricks-and-mortar ramifications of this trend for the Party, which appears to be taking at least some of its cues from the more aggressive Netroots factions. Most immediately, we are at risk of driving out more and more moderate and/or unconventional-thinking Democrats and cannibalizing our support base. And leading up to the critical 2008 elections, we are at risk of diverting attention away from our ideals and ideas (not to mention the Republicans' catastrophic failures), repelling the voters we need most to win back, and giving the corrupt cynical forces of the right an opening to maintain their grip on power.

This could be especially poisonous at this particular moment, as a friend of mine pointed out, given the obvious Republican strategy of trying to define the party by its angriest and ugliest voices. If we continue to conform to their caricature, we might as well put the electoral equivalent of a "kick me" sign on our backs.

Now, the very act of holding up this moral mirror, and raising these alarms, will be seen by many as yet another display of disloyalty and expose me to be a self-hating Democrat. To me, the logic of that is incomprehensible. If I hated the Democratic Party, I would not bother engaging in this debate and subjecting myself to Klein's kind of vilification. I would have become an independent long ago -- and trust me, the thought has crossed my mind.

But like a lot of my ostensible critics, I believe some things are too important to not fight for. The difference, it seems, is that I don't treat those in the Democratic blogosphere who may disagree with me as the enemy.

I may skirmish with some of them about strategy, and suggest, as I have and will continue to do so, that their anger, while justified, is often blinding them to some hard realities and impeding our ability to win. To me, that's what small-d democracy is all about, the vigorous competition of ideas and arguments. But I am not going to arbitarily attack their character or say they have no place in my party.

Make no mistake, I don't pull punches when analyzing the party's problems -- we're in such deep denial I believe there is no choice but to provide a few shocks to the system. But I don't make it personal or gratuitously insult the people on the other side of the debate. And as I hope I have demonstrated with this post, I am not reluctant to own up to my missteps.

So let me close with an appeal to my friends in the Democratic blogging world. If you really want to grow this conversation in numbers and in influence, and have your voices carry beyond the limited world of the Web, let's put a stop to the nasty lashouts and leave the litmus tests to the Pat Robertsons of the world.

I am all for loudly and clearly standing up for the core ideals that unite us. But the fact is we have to grow the party if we hope to regain majority status and control of our country, which means we can't really afford to be mocking or excluding large numbers of people from our ranks just because they disagree with the party orthodoxy on a small number of issues.

As for Howie Klein and his fans, all I can say is this: If you really care about free speech, then please stop punishing people for practicing it.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


Today's LSOTA (Latest Sign Of The Apocalypse)

Some folks like to think we New Yorkers have cornered the market on incivility. But cheeck out this story out of Utah, and you can begin to see that America's culture of repugnance is alive and well in all corners of this great land.

In what might be called the mother of all rugrat sports rage incidents, a 33-year-old woman attending a youth league basketball game for fifth- and sixth-graders in Cedar City attacked a referee after the game over foul calls -- a referee who happened to be five months pregnant.

The referee is apparently okay. Our social norms, on the other hand, clearly are not.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


The Thin Line Between Fact and Farce

The only reason I know that this is a parody, and not a real story, is that I found it on the Onion. Otherwise, it sounds too true to be good.

Democrats Vow Not To Give Up Hopelessness

February 27, 2006 | Issue 42•09

WASHINGTON, DC—In a press conference on the steps of the Capitol Monday, Congressional Democrats announced that, despite the scandals plaguing the Republican Party and widespread calls for change in Washington, their party will remain true to its hopeless direction.

"We are entirely capable of bungling this opportunity to regain control of the House and Senate and the trust of the American people," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said to scattered applause. "It will take some doing, but we're in this for the long and pointless haul."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reaffirms the Democratic Party’s promise to remain marginalized.

"We can lose this," Reid added. "All it takes is a little lack of backbone."

Read more here.


Homer of the Free

Every once in a while you come across a report/study/story that perfectly pinpoints what's wrong with our society, culture, polity, etc. The latest candidate for the latest sign of the apocalypse was a poll that the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum released yesterday, showing that Americans are far more familiar with the Simpsons than the First Amendment.

According to the museum's press release:

"[O]nly about one in four Americans (28 percent) are able to name more than one of the five fundamental freedoms granted to them by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Yet when it comes to knowledge of popular culture, Americans are considerably more tuned in. For example, almost twice as many Americans (52 percent) can name at least two members of “The Simpsons” cartoon family.

"And while more than one in five (22 percent) Americans can name all five of the fictional Simpsons family members – Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie – just one in 1,000 people surveyed (.1 percent) were able to name all five freedoms granted under the First Amendment."

And my Democratic friends wonder how we wound up with an incompetent ignoramus in the White House -- and reelected him to boot.

Well, this is not rocket science. In a democratic republic, the people get the government they deserve. And when you have an electorate that is largely checked out and bordering on politically illiterate, and that does not know enough about their liberties to care (let alone notice) when they are undermined and overwhelmed, you get a government about as farcical as your average Simpsons episode.

Now to be fair to voters, they have good reason to be apathetic. Our democratic system has become warped beyond all recognition -- at least as compared to the Jeffersonian vision of self-government -- by politicians who have largely and ritualistically abandoned their responsibility to put the public interest above personal and partisan expedience.

Nor have our public leaders or institutions demanded much in the way of civic engagement or individual responsibility from we the people. Most federal and state elected officials treat voters as if they were simps, talking to them in monosyllablles and rarely ever challenging them to think for themselves, let alone to think of others.

Moreover, just look closely at our public education system -- which long ago lost any real interest in its original mission of inculcating children with the habits of citizenship, and which today is mostly a mix of middling mediocrity (suburbs/exurbs) and chronic failure (inner cities) -- and it's not hard to fathom that more kids know what kind of beer Homer drinks than what it actually means to be the home of the free.

The result is what might be called the mother of all vicious circles -- political irresponsibility begets public disconnection begets educational failure, which then leads to a vacuum of accountability, a license for further political gamesmanship, and more irresponsibility, more disconnection, and more ignorance. Rinse, lather, deplete.

I could go on and on for days about the dangers of this knowledge gap and our priorities being so far out of whack. But no surfeit of words I could come up with could come close to capturing the stakes involved here as this concise warning from Jefferson (who, notwithstanding Bart's admonition, would certainly be having a cow right now if he saw how we have taken for granted the great gift of liberty he and his fellow founders entrusted to us): "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."

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